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Exploring Staten Island's Alice Austen House, home to a pioneering female photographer

Amid a development boom on Staten Island, this 17th-century homestead remains

Alice Austen House in Staten Island.

Staten Island’s North Shore is in the midst of an extensive development overhaul. The St. George Waterfront Redevelopment is aimed at transforming the area into an entertainment and leisure destination, with a fancy hotel, a high-end outlet retail center, and most famously, the New York Wheel, which will have the distinction of being the largest one of its kind in the Western Hemisphere.

Further south, the Stapleton Waterfront is also receiving some much needed investment with the New Stapleton Waterfront Park and the opening of Staten Island Urby, a 900-unit rental building with retail services and a focus on public space.

While these innovative plans will undoubtedly transform the north shore, rest assured that not all of Staten Island’s coveted shoreline will change. If you are in need of a tranquil respite as well as an impressive view of The Narrows, look just a bit further south to the Alice Austen House.

Located at in the Rosebank section of Staten Island, the Alice Austen House was named after the famous female photographer whose grandfather, an affluent businessman, purchased the Dutch Colonial house and surrounding property in 1844. The house is quite old, first constructed as a one-room frame dwelling in the 1690s.

But the structure gradually expanded; around 1725, the room that became the present parlor was added and during the middle of the century, the dining room and kitchen wing were constructed. As is customary with most Dutch farmhouses of the time, the kitchen was most likely first erected as a free-standing structure and then later incorporated to be a part of the main house. Per the Landmarks Preservation Commission designation report, that room still has its original bake oven.

The homestead was given the name "Clear Comfort," and Alice Austen’s grandfather would spend a quarter of a century transforming this dilapidated farmhouse into the charming Victorian cottage that stands today. His close friend, the prolific architect James Renwick Jr. (who designed a plethora of NYC buildings including Grace Church and St. Patrick’s Cathedral), provided further renovations to the house.

By inserting Gothic Revival dormers into the Dutch-style roof, adorning the roof with a ridge crest and scalloped shingles, and decorating the entire structure with intricate gingerbread trim, Renwick transformed the matter-of-fact Dutch Colonial house into an exemplar of Victorian architectural romanticism.

A piazza (covered porch) was also added, "shaded by five varieties of vines, including Japanese wisteria." The house we have the pleasure of seeing today has been preserved in this style.

Although originally purchased as a summer home, Austen took up permanent residence at his new shorefront house in the 1860’s, following the illness and resulting deaths of two of his infant sons. The house’s most famous resident and namesake, Alice Austen, moved to the family home after she and her mother (also named Alice) were abandoned by young Alice’s father.

Despite these unpleasant circumstances, Alice had a solid upbringing and was constantly surrounded by family as various relatives lived in the house. One such relative was her Uncle Oswald Muller, who first introduced her to photography when he brought her home a camera when she was just ten years old.

As evidenced by her early portfolio of photographs, her family house and home-life impacted her career a great deal. As detailed on the house’s website, "The people and places closest to her—her grandparents, mother, aunt and uncles, household servants and visitors, as well as the Austen house and garden as seen from every possible angle of driveway and water’s edge—served as the first subjects for Alice’s camera."

Her photographs documented the daily lives of New Yorkers and her subjects often included postmen, policemen, bootblacks, fishmongers, messengers, newsgirls, street-sweepers, snow-cleaners and peddlers. Although her impressive portfolio of more than 8,000 images deserved much attention, it was her personal life that gave her a bit of notoriety. Defying Victorian convention, Alice never married and instead, spent 50 years with her longtime partner Gertrude Tate, who moved into the house in 1917.

The house would remain in the Austen family for 100 years; however, due to financial problems, Alice and Gertrude were forced to vacate the house in 1945. Afterwards, the house fell into serious neglect and deterioration, with destruction of this historic homestead seemingly imminent.

This prompted a group of concerned citizens (which would eventually become the Friends of the Alice Austen House, Inc.) to mobilize and spearhead an effort to save the home beginning in the 1960s. Through their considerable efforts, around $1 million was obtained from the New York City capital budget for a full restoration of the home, which occurred from January 1984 through April 1985.

Today, the Alice Austen House offers ongoing exhibitions on Alice’s life and work, provides educational programs for school children, and hosts public art programs and events. The House and grounds are owned by the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation and operated by the Friends of the Alice Austen House, Inc. The house is a member of the Historic House Trust and is also listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a NYC designated landmark.

Due to the decades of persevering preservation efforts from concerned citizens, the public is able to enjoy the Alice Austen House and its grounds just as Ms. Austen’s family once did.